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Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Disney's first try at action/adventure animation comes up just a little bit soggy
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
USA, 2001
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise have the dubious distinction of being the only Disney directors whose films always make me feel ambivalent. Beauty and the Beast's message was compromised by the ending, when Beast became a blandly handsome prince; Hunchback of Notre Dame couldn't decide if it was for adults or for kids. Atlantis: The Lost Empire, unfortunately, continues the trend.

I walked into the screening of Atlantis really wanting--and cautiously expecting--to enjoy it. I've been observing Disney's tentative shedding of their tried, true, and often tiring formula since Mulan, and I've enjoyed the trend started with Tarzan where there are few or no song-and-dance numbers, leaving most of a film's hour and a half devoted to moving the story along. Atlantis seemed to have what I've been waiting for: no songs, an action/adventure theme, a fantastic setting, and truly striking visuals. Essentially, it's a project with elements that animation can be good for, but that few North American animators get to tackle.

But I couldn't enjoy it wholeheartedly. I really couldn't.

That's not to say Atlantis isn't worth seeing. It is. It's worth seeing because it represents Disney's first serious break with its old habits, largely by leaping feet first into the action/adventure genre, which doesn't lend itself to many of the elements we've come to associate with Disney. I was almost giddy with excitement when I watched the high-tech submarine Ulysses attempt to defend itself against the gigantic Leviathan with tiny, submersible fighters like something out of an underwater Star Wars. I can only imagine how it felt for the artists and animators who are no doubt fans of science fiction and adventure films, but until now could never really approach those areas.

Even my usual complaint, that Disney clings ever more fiercely to some aspects of their formula when they shed others, isn't valid here. Well, there is the exception of Molière (voiced by Corey Burton), a dirt-loving, roly-poly French man who serves as the oddball comic relief sure to amuse kids with his antics. Fortunately, there are enough characters surrounding him to prevent him from grating too much.

The story, too, is simple without being simplistic: It's 1914, and Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox) has been searching for Atlantis his whole life, continuing the quest his late grandfather had started. Constantly ridiculed by his peers, Milo's fortunes change when a very old and very rich friend of his grandfather provides him with a submarine, a crew, and the Shepherd's Journal--the text that is the key to finding the lost city. They find Atlantis, a lot sooner than you'd expect; but what they find isn't what they, or we, are expecting at all.

The characters themselves are hardly complex, and aren't all that surprising; you can see the double-crosses and changes of heart coming from a mile off. Still, they're reasonably engaging. It's a pretty big cast for a Disney movie, but everyone gets fleshed out well enough that you can sit down after the movie and talk about who your favorites are. (My two picks were Vinny Salvatore, the Italian demolitions expert, and Mrs. Stanley, the unbelievably sour communications officer.)

The visuals are also a kick: Mike Mignola, who has made a living drawing comics with a unique angular and often somber style is listed first among the production designers, and his signature is all over the movie. You can even spot it in the design of the Atlanteans themselves, though it's been softened and "Disneyfied."

The two major flaws, as I see it, are structural. First is in the design: several characters look like they belong in some other movie. Audrey, the Ulysses' engineer, should be in a Ralph Bakshi movie; Helga, second in command, belongs in a Howard Chaykin comic. I find it distressing that a studio that emphasizes drawing skills so much seems to be ignoring the concept of consistent character design. It's an especially bad sign when non-animators in the audience start noticing it.

Second, there's the odd sense of timing: for the first third of the movie (and chunks of the rest), there isn't any. Animators like to talk about the weight of a character, those shifts of mass that make his or her movements believable. Strangely enough, there's little weight to the dialogue and action. When blonde bombshell Helga (voiced by Claudia Christian) appears out of the darkness to tell Milo about his opportunity, it's staged like a scene right out of a Raymond Chandler story. But with the hurried back-and-forth dialogue, no word or phrase comes out feeling more significant than another. It's like the directors just want to get out of the buildings and get underwater as fast as they can.

Eventually they do, of course, and then the film takes off. Atlantis bears a PG rating, and definitely earns it. While a touch less violent than, say, Star Wars, the heightened sense of danger adds an edge that hasn't been seen in a Disney animated feature since... well, ever. But that edge becomes blunted when there's no rhythm to the story, no highs or lows in the pacing.

Some anime fans have said that Atlantis: The Lost Empire rips off Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water, a theory I don't really buy. If anything, Atlantis aims for the feel of Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and while on some levels it comes close, they still have a long way to go. Still, if you think of the films from Disney's golden age, their best output came when they were exploring, feeling their way into new territory, and making the odd mistake. If the modern Disney doesn't shrink from the challenge, Atlantis could mark the beginning of a journey into new territory for the studio, and consequently for Western animation. And that's an adventure I'll happily sign on for.

A Critical Eye exclusive (June 15, 2001)